The Washington Nationals just announced that, starting this season, fans will no longer be able to bring backpacks into the ballpark. They will make exceptions for backpack-style diaper bags or backpacks used for ADA/medical reasons. Anything else, including purses, briefcases, drawstring bags, diaper bags and soft-sided coolers have to be smaller than 16”x16”x8”.
You will not be surprised to hear that the Nationals cite “security” as the reason for this. You will also not be surprised that they do not say what kind of security risk backpacks pose in 2019 that they did not pose in 2018, 2017 or in any of the years before that. I mean, it’s not like we didn’t know someone could do bad things via a backpack at a sporting event before now. That’s why they have metal detectors and bag searches at every single ballpark these days. What has changed, exactly?
Asking around on Twitter, many have suggested to me that it’s less about there being a security threat than a security inefficiency. A few Nats fans tell me that the lines to get into the ballpark have been long in recent years and a big part of that is that bag searches take a long time. That seems to me to be more of a staffing issue than a security issue. Or perhaps a financial issue, in that the longer it takes fans to get inside the less beer and stuff will be sold. Whatever the truth of the matter is, in this country we’ve developed the habit of not questioning things when someone cites “security,” so I’d probably go with that too if I ran the Nationals.
I do know a couple of things, though. I know that a primary selling point for downtown parks like Nats Park was that people can just go from work to the ballgame during the week. That’s a bit harder now for people who don’t have time to swing home and drop off their stuff before going to the game (i.e. almost everyone).
I also know that, as we make the ballpark experience more and more like going to the airport, the less and less enjoyable it becomes.
I also know that attendance is down across the league.
But hey, security.
We’ve had a couple of notable incidents of sign stealing in Major League Baseball over the past couple of years. Most famously, the Red Sox were found to be using Apple Watches of all things to relay signs spied via video feed. Sports Illustrated reported yesterday that there have been other less-publicized and unpublicized incidents as well, mostly with in-house TV cameras — as opposed to network TV cameras — stationed in the outfield and trained on catchers, for the specific purpose of stealing signs.
As such, SI reports, Major League Baseball is cracking down beginning this year. Within the next couple weeks an already-drafted and circulated rule will take effect which will (a) ban in-house outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole; (b) will limit live broadcasts available to teams to the team’s replay official only, and the replay official will be watched by a league official to keep them from relaying signs to the team; and (c) other TV monitors that are available to the clubs will be on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign stealing. There will likewise be limits on TV monitors showing the game feed in certain places like tunnels and clubhouses.
Penalties for violation of the rules will include the forfeiting of draft picks and/or international spending money. General managers will have to sign a document in which they swear they know of know sign-stealing schemes.
As was the case when the Apple Watch incident came up, there will not be any new rules regarding old fashioned sign stealing by runners on second base or what have you, as that is viewed as part of the game. Only the technology-aided sign stealing that has become more prominent in recent years — but which has, of course, existed in other forms for a very, very long time — is subject to the crackdown.
While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.
Now, presumably, with these new rules coming online, teams will figure out a new way to cheat. It’s baseball, after all. It’s in their DNA.